As fans of Claire Askew’s series of detective novels featuring DI Helen Birch will appreciate, when the heroine wakes up to a bright Edinburgh morning at the start of A Matter of Time, and declares that today will be a good day, she is asking for trouble. Suffice to say that her plans for a relaxing time fail to come to fruition, and what follows is a very difficult 24 hours, each hour described in one of 24 chapters.
The fast-paced story begins when Birch hears reports on her car radio of a mass shooting at a rural agricultural show. To begin with, members of the Capital’s police force are only required to lend background support to their colleagues in the Borders, where a gunman is holed up in a ruined cottage with a three-year-old hostage. By nightfall, however, Birch is being sent in alone to conduct face-to-face negotiations.
The perpetrator has requested her specifically, but no one knows why. She finds herself unarmed in the darkness with a whimpering child and an unstable man who has already killed that day, and no means of contacting her back-up team. Worse, she has only had a few minutes’ brief from a hostage negotiation expert on how to build rapport, de-escalate the violence and try to preserve all the lives at risk.
What follows is a hugely gripping unfolding of motivations and action, as Birch tries to understand the psychology of a damaged man and draw a line between empathy and correct procedure. The action inside the cottage is intercut with conversations that the police team are having in the next field, but there is little time to analyse decisions or or reflect on possible outcomes. Birch is left to her own reading of the risks, informed by life experience and her interpretation of human behaviour. Never a gung-ho police officer, we see every threat and fear through her eyes.
Askew’s first DI Birch novel, All The Hidden Truths, established the author as a master of character and pacing with an acute ear for language. Here too, information is built from multiple background sources – Twitter conversations, tabloid newspaper reports, online blogs, and in all of these formats Askew displays pitch-perfect understanding of tone and cadence, just as she does with characters’ speech – you can actually hear the difference between and old and young Edinburgh accents.
The tension builds to genuinely frightening peaks and then twists to moving descriptions of the horrors of the past. The narrative harks back to the previous books in the series – this is the fourth – and although it works as a standalone, I’d advise those unfamiliar with Askew’s work to start at the beginning, the better to enjoy the breathtaking thrill of the ride.
A Matter of Time, by Claire Askew, Hodder & Stoughton, 291pp, £16.99
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